Gillian Russom draws out the lessons of a new book about Cesar Chavez
and the founding of the United Farm Workers.
April 9, 2009
Randy Shaw, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle
for Justice in the 21st Century. University of California Press,
2008, 368 pages, $24.95.
WITH THEIR rallying cry of ¡Sí Se Puede!, Cesar Chavez and the United
Farm Workers (UFW) brought the brutal treatment of workers in the
fields to national attention in the 1960s. In Beyond the Fields,
Randy Shaw seeks to reclaim the legacy of the UFW for a new
generation of activists.
Shaw argues that a number of strategies that are now taken for
granted within social movements consumer boycotts, building an
alliance with clergy, connecting environmental and social justice,
grassroots "get out the vote" campaigns and putting Latino workers at
the forefront of the labor movement--were pioneered by the UFW more
than 50 years ago.
Although the UFW itself experienced a sharp decline in power by the
1980s, Shaw uncovers the human legacy created by the farmworkers'
movement--hundreds of young people trained in activism by the UFW who
went on devote their lives to social change. He also argues that the
UFW's struggle laid the basis for the immigrant rights movement of
the 21st century.
Cesar Chavez grew up in the fields, traveling throughout California
with his family to pick or plant whatever vegetables were in season
for wages of $3 a day. When he began organizing the National Farm
Workers Association in 1962, Chavez picked cotton from 6 a.m. to 2
p.m. and then worked late into the night visiting workers' homes to
recruit them. Having seen several failed organizing campaigns, Chavez
realized that it would take patient and persistent organizing to
build a union in the fields.
The use of consumer boycotts grew out of the need to broaden the
power of farmworkers' strikes beyond the isolated arena of the fields
where growers exercised enormous power. With the national grape
boycott that began in 1968, volunteers were sent to a hundred
different cities to spread the word about the working conditions in the fields.
The boycott transformed a local union struggle into a nationwide
social justice movement that engaged hundreds of activists and
millions of supporters. An estimated 17 million Americans refused to
buy grapes between 1966 and 1972, creating economic pressure that
helped the UFW to win over 200 grape contracts covering 70,000 workers.
Shaw argues that this grassroots movement--in which the farmworkers
themselves took center stage--was very different than the "paper
boycotts" implemented by unions in later decades as a substitute for
Another brilliant strategy of the UFW was its campaign against
pesticides. Farmworker illness and death from exposure to DDT and
other toxic insecticides were commonplace, yet the only federal
regulations were those that protected the growers from being "wrongly
accused of causing harm." Through a nationwide publicity campaign,
the UFW convincingly showed that a union contract was the only way to
limit growers' use of pesticides, which would protect the health of
consumers as well as farmworkers. This campaign provides a model for
connecting the issues of environmental and social justice.
Perhaps the UFW's most lasting contribution to other movements was
that they trained a new generation of activists in practical
organizing for social justice. The UFW was the first union to
actively recruit young people as organizers. "While the Peace Corps
and the poverty programs were recruiting us, unions were too afraid
of communists to talk to us," remembers Marshall Ganz, who joined the
UFW at an organizing meeting of Students for a Democratic Society in 1965.
In contrast, the UFW staffed its national boycott with young people,
who sometimes worked 100 hours a week for just $5. The UFW was able
to inspire these activists by combining concrete tasks that would
make a difference with a vision of a long-term struggle--creating a
national union for farmworkers. After the UFW, many of these people
continued to work for unions or other social justice causes for the
rest of their lives.
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Other UFW tactics that Shaw celebrates are more problematic. In 1968,
Chavez began his 25-day "spiritual fast" to gain support for the
grape industry boycott. Chavez initially embarked on the fast in
order to dissuade farmworkers--who were becoming frustrated with the
lack of progress in their strike--from using violence on the picket
lines. As thousands of supporters made pilgrimages to the farm where
he was fasting, Chavez used these meetings to increase their loyalty
to his leadership.
His fast certainly succeeded in gaining publicity for the UFW and
increased the moral authority of their cause. At the same time, it
turned Chavez into a saint-like figure, and increased the degree to
which the farmworkers' struggle was associated with him and his
This approach may have contributed to a lack of democracy in the UFW
that was a major factor in its decline. As UFW leader Philip Vera
Cruz explains, "If a union leader is built up as a symbol and he
talks like he was God, then there is no way that you can have true
democracy in the union because the members are just generally
deprived of the right to reason for themselves."
Shaw also devotes much attention to the UFW's grassroots "get out the
vote" campaigns. Through the early 1970s, these campaigns were mostly
focused on defeating pro-grower legislation, but by the 1980s, the
focus shifted to support of Democratic Party politicians such as
Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi. Certainly, aggressive efforts by
the UFW and its affiliated organizations to register Latino voters
have played a part in shifting California from a Republican to a
Democratic-majority state over the past 50 years. But if supporting
Democrats is an effective strategy for social change, why have
conditions for farmworkers only gotten worse in the state as the
number of Democrats in Sacramento has grown?
One of the book's central arguments is that the UFW and its alumni
laid the basis for the explosion of the immigrant rights movement in
2006. Indeed, the way that the UFW brought immigrant workers out of
the shadows and showed their centrality to the U.S. economy has
benefited today's movement.
More specifically, UFW alumni such as Los Angeles County Federation
of Labor Maria Elena Durazo and Service Employees International Union
Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina played a role in organizing
the 2003 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (IWFR). With the IWFR, the
U.S. labor movement finally put out a public argument about why all
workers must support immigrant rights, and brought this message to
dozens of small towns around the country that would take part in the
immigrant rights movement's explosion three years later.
But the record of the UFW itself on immigrant rights is conflicted.
The UFW accepted all farmworkers, regardless of immigration status.
However, when growers brought in undocumented immigrants as
strikebreakers, Chavez's response was to call on the government and
the Immigration and Naturalization Services to increase border
enforcement and deport the scabs.
At the time, Bert Corona and his Hermandad Mexicana Nacional
disagreed with Chavez's position, and argued for organizing the
undocumented instead. While this certainly would not have been an
easy thing to do in the heat of a strike, Chavez's approach only
served to bolster the idea that immigrant workers were the cause of
poor working conditions in the U.S. and to strengthen the repressive
forces that have been used against farmworkers' attempts to organize
time and time again.
When he applies Chavez's politics to the struggle for immigrant
rights today, Shaw ends up supporting the most conservative wing of
the movement. For example, he approvingly quotes a student organizer
who "ordered classmates to put away Mexican flags they had brought to
the demonstration" because "the UFW understood the symbolic potency
of American flags."
Incredibly, Shaw also agrees with Eliseo Medina's opposition to the
powerful "Day without an immigrant" one-day strike and boycott on May
1, 2006, saying that it "resembled the...ineffective paper boycotts"
that Chavez opposed! Medina and the "Somos America" coalition argued
for students and workers to attend an evening rally instead of
skipping work and school, but tens of thousands boycotted anyway.
As immigrants and their supporters took to the streets to demand
equality, "Eliseo Medina was in lengthy meetings with senators and
their staffs." He ended up supporting a "compromise" immigration bill
that included a guest-worker program. The end of the bracero
"guest-worker" program was the precondition for the building of the
UFW. Yet Shaw defends Medina's surrender on these vital issues as an
effort to "put the immigrant rights movement on the side of progress
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IN CHAPTER 10, Shaw returns to the UFW itself to examine why the
union experienced a sharp decline in membership and influence by the
1980s. "By 2006, the UFW had no table grape contracts...Sadly, some
believe that the wages and working conditions for farmworkers today
lag farther behind those of other workers than they did in 1965, when
the Delano grape strike began."
Shaw argues that the main factor in this decline was the way in which
Chavez increasingly sought to assert total control over the UFW's
activities, expelling those who disagreed with him and leaving no
space for alternative viewpoints. As a result, most of the key
figures who had built the union left between 1977 and 1981. Shaw writes:
[A]s typically happens to human beings who become symbols of larger
ideals, Chavez's shortcomings...have been minimized or even ignored.
As a result, most accounts of the union's decline primarily blame
external factors--chief among them California's election of a
pro-Republican governor...This...view, which insulates Cesar Chavez
from responsibility for the union's decline, actually undermines the
great accomplishments of the farmworkers movement. It wrongly assumes
that Chavez was powerful enough to continue building the UFW without
most of his key allies, and it perpetuates the false idea that
politicians can readily defeat progressive social movements.
In other words, true respect for the struggles of the past requires
that we learn from their mistakes as well as their successes. This
same critical approach should be applied to the UFW's whole history,
not just its disintegration in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With
this approach, we should be able to reject those strategies that did
not build a stronger union--turning Chavez into a saintlike figure,
supporting border enforcement and pouring resources into electing
Democrats--while embracing all the inspiring successes of the UFW's struggle.
The new generation of activists who is being born needs such a
critical approach so that we can build stronger, lasting movements
for the future.